Race is on to save the rare Taita Apalis

On the mist covered Taita Hills survive a tiny number of endemic birds, the Taita Apalis (Apalis fuscigularis).

A recent survey shows that the population of this, perhaps Kenya’s rarest bird, to be between 100 and 200. The decrease in numbers has been documented since 2001.

If no action is taken to save the rare species, it could become Kenya’s first endemic bird to become extinct.

The Taita Apalis is listed as critically endangered in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List because it is found in a small range of 500 hectares or five square kilometres.

“Kenya will be the first country on the African mainland to witness the extinction of a land bird species,” said Dr Luca Borghesio, a forest biologist and research associate with the National Museums of Kenya who studies endangered birds around the world.

“Some island species have been lost, if you count Mauritius as being in Africa,” added Fleur Ng’weno of Nature Kenya.

Nature Kenya — the country’s oldest nature conservation organisation, established in 1909 — is spearheading a campaign to save the Taita Apalis from the brink of extinction with an appeal for funds to buy or lease parcels of land on the tops of the Taita Hills, to restore degraded areas and engage local people into protecting this rare species. The organisation is looking to raise £70,000 (about $109,000).

“The appeal is very urgent,” said Dr Borghesio. “We have seen a 60 per cent decline in the population of the species in less than 15 years, and since 2009 things have got worse. When we compared the results of the 2009-2010 counts with earlier data collected in 2001, we found evidence of a sharp decrease. The data from 2012-2014 confirmed the downward trend to the estimated 100-200 individuals now.”

This insect-eating bird, which helps to keep pests at bay in forests and farms, is threatened largely by humans clearing vegetation for farming and is also preyed upon by rodents, monkeys and snakes.

Eastern Arc Mountains

The Eastern Arc Mountains are a chain of mountains running northeast from Kenya’s Taita Hills into Tanzania’s Pare Hills and the Usambaras. The mountain chain is a biological hotspot for endemic species of flora and fauna.

Being near the coastline, they are the first massifs to catch the winds swept inland from the Indian Ocean. The moist laden winds form clouds that cover the massifs from late afternoon to late morning making the hills conducive for the growth of a plethora of unique flora and fauna found nowhere else — like the critically endangered Taita thrush, the Taita shrew and the Sagalla Caecilian (an amphibian that looks like a snake).

“Several other Taita endemics have not been evaluated against IUCN criteria, but they could turn out to be critically endangered too when the evaluation carried out. These include the endemic African violet, the Taita galago and one particular frog,” said Dr Borghesio.

Taita Apalis

“Preliminary evidence suggests that the Taita Apalis is vocally distinct from other species in the Apalis family. It has a very distinctive plumage,” said Dr Borghesio.

“More evidence is necessary to confirm its status, but the fact that it is different both in its plumage and in its song is a strong pointer to the validity of it as a full species.”

Like many other species that have a particular niche, the Taita Apalis nests and usually forages in low regrowing vegetation, usually close to forest gaps or forest edges.

“The Taita Apalis cannot survive on plantations, farms, or bushes alone,” said Ng’weno. “It needs the forest.”

The most recent discovery of a population in Msidunyi forest in the Taita Hills was unexpected. The discovery was done by Dr Borghesio and his field assistant Lawrence Wagura in October 2011 because it was thought that the hilltops had been extensively explored until the researchers searched on a private farm that was partly an indigenous forest.

“There is a slight chance of finding another population in the least explored corners of the Taita Hills,” said Dr Borghesio. “But, if it exists, it will be small and severely threatened, as are all the already known populations of Taita Apalis.”

Working with local communities, Nature Kenya plans to restore 115 hectares of degraded Vuria Community Forest, which is a continuation of the Msidunyi forest.

The forest is held in trust for the local people by the Taita-Taveta County government. Further, Nature Kenya is looking for more private land to buy or lease to secure the availability of the Taita Apalis’s habitat.

“This is an ambitious project, perhaps the first of its kind in Africa,” said Dr Borghesio. “Hopefully it will lead to similar initiatives in the Taita Hills and elsewhere.”